Technology usage by children is a topic which elicits strong opinions. Many parents feel it is something that should be strictly limited, withheld or earned. Growing up, television was something that was restricted and tightly controlled for me. I had to do a lot of de-schooling when I became a parent because I had internalized a lot of negative feelings towards television. I am an autistic parent to three autistic children who really enjoy using technology, so I have had to really step back and sit with my discomfort while they learned to self regulate after we got the iPad. Television wasn’t something I ever limited, but when we got our first iPad, my children really loved it. They wanted to use it all day and many days they did, and still do.
We live in a society that tends to shame people for using technology, especially children. This is deeply ableist, as many disabled people use technology to communicate and should have access to it at all times without judgment or commentary. It is also childist as it holds that adults know best how children should be spending their time.
I know a lot of parents who spend most of their awake time using a smart phone, but forbid their children from watching television or restrict iPad use to thirty minutes a day. Trusting children can be very hard, especially when you were raised to believe that you yourself could not be trusted. It is hard to let go and let your children make decisions for themselves that you may not make for them.
We are a family of radical unschoolers. My children do not go to school and we do not do school at home. We follow a child led approach to life and learning so we utilize many different resources for fun and play. One of my children’s favorite toys is the iPad. They love watching videos, playing games and looking things up on their iPads. We do not have any limits on their iPad use. The iPads are always within reach and we charge them as often as necessary. My children do not have to fear that their iPads will be taken away after a certain time period or have to use it on a timer.
Two years ago, I would have felt the need to defend our use right now. To explain how we also play outside, read, go to the library and the children’s museum. Now I have de-schooled and unpacked a lot of the discomfort I felt, I don’t feel the need to defend our use of technology including the frequency or content. My six year old daughter watches a lot of toy collector and cake decorating videos on YouTube Kids. Maybe it is educational and she will become a baker some day. More importantly, it is FUN and interesting for her. This is how she chooses to spend her time which makes it a valuable thing.
My older son loves looking up animals and finding out which animals are predators and which are prey. This is the very first thing he wants to do when he wakes up and he spends most of his time at home researching animals. He has learned a lot about animals and about geography, but that isn’t what makes it worthwhile. It is worthwhile because it is something he enjoys and how he chooses to spend his time. My younger son loves listening to music on the iPad. He gets really happy and stimmy and dances along. Music is fun for him so that makes it worth doing. What is important to my children has inherent value because it matters to them.
When people feel shamed or judged for their or their child’s technology use, they may feel compelled to explain the use or justify what was being done to make it *okay*. One popular defense is the notion that technology is okay as long as your child is doing something related to learning (reading, watching documentaries, playing educational iPad apps).
There is also the belief that being on a phone or iPad is anti-social. I am autistic and sometimes use my phone as a stim or an escape. It provides me with an outlet. My children will use the iPad at times in situations when they need to stim or self calm by doing something predictable. We sometimes eat dinner in front of the television and we have our devices at the table when we eat. Sometimes we eat separately and watch our own shows. This is what works for my family. I do this with books too, but no one has ever commented on that. It’s the stigma of technology.
There is a widely held belief that autistic children cannot self regulate their electronic use. We were told by various professionals that we should strictly limit our children’s use of technology since autistic people will seemingly become addicted and be unable to do anything else. I have not found these negative assumptions to be true. I see parents comment frequently that no limits on screen time is okay for non autistic children only; this is often asserted by people who have not worked through the de-schooling/ learning to self regulate part. When children know that their screen time is limited and controlled, they are more likely to have anxiety surrounding their use.
When we first got our iPad, I had to resist the urge to set parameters about its usage and just let my children figure out what works best for them. As it turns out, they really like technology. As a child, I spent hours every day reading in my room. To this day, I pursue my hobbies with intensity and love researching. I would not want someone to dictate how much time I could spend pursuing my special interests and hobbies.
What about outdoor play? Unschooling communities in particular place a high value on time spent outdoors getting muddy. There are hashtags for #ChildhoodUnplugged on pictures of kids playing in the mud and jumping in rain puddles. These are things I did as a child and sometimes as a family, we are outside playing for hours too. There is article after article about the importance of outdoor play as well as articles shaming the use of toys with lights and sounds. The overarching message to these types of posts is that a childhood spent “plugged in” is less authentic or inferior to a child’s time spent “unplugged.”
Sometimes I get a return of the nagging feeling that we should be outside enjoying the nice weather. Do my kids want to or do I just feel obligated to do that because it is the more socially acceptable activity? We plan activities and sometimes the iPads get tossed to the couch in favor of requests to play outside. The choice is my children’s, not mine. When I am making decisions or placing value judgments about what my children *should be* doing, that is a clear attempt to control them. I do not want to do that.
There is a term in unschooling communities that I see used a lot. If someone shares a story, for instance, about their teen who memorized fish facts throughout their childhood and now works at an aquarium, they call it an “unschooling win.” What this well intentioned phrase usually means is that time spent as a child has led to a socially acceptable outcome. I have discomfort around this mentality because it places a value judgment on our children’s hobbies. I think it is meant to show that that perceived “wasted time” memorizing facts was not in fact wasted since it led to a job and a path to success that our society approves of.
For us, the unschooling “win” is when my children choose for themselves, not when they choose something that I would have chosen or that society views as acceptable. The freedom is in the choosing and in the trust I place in my children to make those decisions. It’s not for me to decide how they should be spending their time or how much time is enough for their special interests.